"When I was in my late twenties, I was employed as a Mill Manager on nights in a Cleckheaton textile factory. The night time complement of workers amounted to some one hundred and ten men. Halfway through the night, the men would take a thirty-minute break and out would come their flasks and sandwiches, the only nourishment to keep them going until 6.00 am when their shift ended. During their break, most would talk between themselves and some would have a brief cat nap before the noise of active machines broke the silence once more.
All over the mill, I could see the different groups of workers exercising their preferred option of amusement during their break and though it wasn't the done thing for a Mill Manager to eat with them, I often watched them play dominoes and cards or listened to their conversations. Like many men of boast who commonly believe that 'bigger is better,' especially in below stairs quarters of masculine anatomy, many of the stories they told among themselves were as tall as the piles of dirty underwear and working garments their wives and mothers washed on their behalf. Most mill employees were men who didn't have the start in life that the middle classes enjoyed and they seized every opportunity to take whatever small pleasure came their way. Few of the workers in the mill that I managed had experienced educational opportunities or apprenticeships which would have secured employment advancement beyond the level of labourer.
It was as though their lives was a constant struggle to make ends meet, and as far as holidays went, Blackpool and Scarborough represented the breath of their horizons. What they lacked in travel experience, however, they more than made up for in imagination. My dear mother, who could 'tell a tale' herself, would have been in good company with them. And although none had any spare money after their wives had paid the bills, like most working-class men, few were adverse to having a little gamble on the side to break the tedium of life.
One night during the break of one group of workers, the chaps started talking about some of the strangest jobs they'd ever done. When it looked like half of the group had held some strange occupations, one man decided to turn the conversation into a competition; naturally with a monetary prize. It was eventually decided that those who chose to tell about their strange job in the contest would outlay the stake of a florin from their next wages, while those who listened to the telling would become the panel of judges who decided which man had won the contest, along with the kitty of florins. (Please note that decimalisation had not yet arrived in England).
It was agreed that the competition would run over the next five nights of the week, as each shift break never allowed time for more than two contributions to be made. I recall a few of the odd jobs being mentioned as being too far-fetched to believe were true. In fact, few strange occupations mentioned by the contestants could not be proved ever to have been held by the man in question. Therefore, it was agreed that the winner of the competition would be the one who was judged to be the most credible of tellers and who'd held the oddest of jobs; the contestant who was 'most believed' by the listening judges; whether their tale was true or false!
One chap claimed to have been a Bubble Gum Blower for a Quality Supervisor in a Doncaster confectionery works. Another said that he and his girlfriend had once slept on a bed in a shop window display for three days and earned £30 for the privilege. One man, who was clearly stretching the limits of our imagination, claimed to have once briefly worked as a Flatulence Smeller in the underwear section of a finishing mill in Holmfirth. He said that if the linen cloth from which women's knickers were made had insufficient filling used in the finishing process, foul air when expelled, would remain trapped and could not escape into the atmosphere until the knickers were removed from the wearer! The occupation I found oddest and clearly in line as a potential winner was that of Chicken Sexer. It would seem that chicks are born in their thousands weekly at some of the larger Battery Farms. When they are born, their tendency is to cuddle together in a mass attempt to keep warm.The most important task after their birth is to sex them individually, as only the female chicks are relevant for egg-laying production, while the male chicks are swiftly fattened and culled for the table.
After one week of storytelling about the strange jobs they had once held, the clear winner of the competition was judged to be Charlie Stokes. Charlie had been born in a Rochdale slum area during the 'Second World War' years. The home in which he lived was, like the rest of his street, rat infested. Charlie said that one month after leaving school, he was taken on as apprentice trainee to a Ratter. His wages were poor, but once he became skilled at his work and had served his apprenticeship, he hoped that he would be able to earn enough for himself and his wife to live off, especially as he was the only Ratter for miles around.
Charlie told his mill mates that even when he did become a qualified rat catcher, he was still too poor to eat properly and provide for his growing family, so, he took on a second job and started 'moonlighting'. Under the protective guise of being the local Ratter, who sometimes shot his prey with a rifle, he started to engage in a bit of regular poaching on a night time. If ever the local Bobby on his beat noticed Charlie with a sack thrown over his shoulder and a rifle and traps at his side while on his rounds of the neighbourhood, he'd merely assume that Charlie had been out on a job, knowing full well that rats come out at night and that is the best time for the Ratter to catch them. While most of the rats would be trapped or poisoned, occasionally Charlie might have to shoot them. Charlie told his mill mates who were enthralled as they listened to his story, that there was many a night when it pleased him greatly to get one up on the Old Bill, as he chatted to the local Bobby with a sackful of rabbit or prime bird on his back.
I never forgot this manner of entertainment that the workers on the night shift whom I supervised would engage in. Indeed, I made it a central part of one of the books I would later have published in later life when I became an author called, 'Tales from the Allotments.'
That book is a Christmas story about redundant miners who become allotment holders. They grow fruit, vegetables and flowers all spring, summer and autumn, but when winter months set in and the ground hardens, they spend their allotment hours holding story contests with a money prize from their entrance fee of a florin. This book was read by the television presenter, Michael Parkinson, at a Barnsley school in the year 2000 when it was launched. It is dedicated to my father who was an ex-miner and all other miners whose lives and communities were shattered when all the northern pits were closed down by Margaret Thatcher during the 1980's.
The book can be purchased from www.smashwords.com in e-book format or from www.lulu.com and amazon in paper/hard/copy, with all book sale profits going to charitable causes in perpetuity (Over £200,000 since 1989). It is suitable for anyone aged between 12 and 100 and would make an ideal Christmas present for any ex-miner or allotment holder." William Forde: November 18th, 2016.